Critical Condition

Sen. Wyden Back in the Game: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

If President Obama really wanted to get a bipartisan agreement on health reform that increases Americans’ choices, instead of a federal take-over of our access to medical services, he didn’t have to let every House and Senate committee squabble pointlessly over competing thousand-page bills.

All he had to do was look at the one bipartisan bill that has existed since 2007, the Healthy Americans Act (S.391 in the current Congress), a.k.a. Wyden-Bennett, which is sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R., Utah). It’s got 14 co-sponsors, ranging from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.).

Wyden-Bennett is the only Democrat-led bill that removes the tax prejudice against employees buying their own health insurance, instead of being forced meekly to accept whatever their HR managers chose for them. Wyden-Bennett has its problems. The most important one is that it proposes both an individual and employer “pay or play” mandate, which would hike taxes and must result in more government control than Senator Wyden anticipates.

Nevertheless, if the Senate accepts the premise that every American should have the same choice of health benefits, irrespective of his employer, Wyden-Bennett is a good starting place. So, it was remarkable that the Wyden-Bennett bill has not come up for serious discussion. One is forced to conclude that the president’s faction is not really interested in giving Americans more choice of health benefits.

In a New York Times op-ed, Senator Wyden rips into the bills currently under consideration. And in an interview with MSNBC he rips into the health-insurance industry for its intensive lobbying to preserve employers’ monopoly over workers’ health benefits (which they do because the high friction costs benefit the insurers).

— John R. Graham is director of Health Care Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

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